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Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Britain's Tabloid Revolution

    Posted by Reena Ganga

In a move that heralds a new chapter in British Journalism, the country's oldest newspaper, The Times, has turned tabloid. Since November 2003, the 219-year-old Rupert Murdoch-owned paper has offered readers both a broadsheet and tabloid edition in an effort to counter dwindling circulation. Now, The Times is following in the footsteps of another British paper, The Independent, which downsized to tabloid in September 2003 after its own dual-format experiment.

The move to tabloid format has already seen a 3.22% rise in sales for The Times. For The Independent, sales have increased 21% since the paper went compact - a remarkable rise for a paper that had sales down 3% a year ago.

The circulation gains come as no surprise... many readers prefer the shrunken down pages which are easier to read during the train or bus ride to work. It's also widely known that broadsheets traditionally cater to more affluent, older readers whilst tabloids cater to the masses. The tabloid format's greater appeal to younger readers is somewhat attributed to the inclusion of celebrity-scandal style stories among its content. However, The Times is adamant it will maintain the "high standards" of Britain's most influential paper, resisting the idea that the shift to tabloid indicates any kind of "dumbing down". The Times also insists its new edition is "compact" not "tabloid" - further blurring the traditional size-based distinction between high-quality broadsheets and low-brow tabloids.

The launch of the "compact" Times and Independent signals a reinvention of journalism in an age where the press is faced with growing challenges from other forms of media, namely online journalism, which provides the public an instantaneous and often free source of news. It will be interesting to see how this tabloid boom changes the face of journalism, and what newspaper editors will do next in the quest to retain and attract readers.


Update: DOES SIZE MATTER? Another issue to emerge from the British trend towards tabloid is that although circulation is up, this has so far failed to translate into extra advertising revenue.

Andrew Neil from Scotsman.com estimates that so far, the lost ad revenue for The Independent is around £10 million. This has been partly due to the paper's declaration it would be charging advertisers the same amount for a tabloid page as it would for a broadsheet page. Not surprisingly, the advertisers flatly refused.

It is easy to see why advertisers baulked. A tabloid page does not have the impact of a broadsheet page, so why should they pay the same money? Newspapers will rightly argue that a tabloid page has more than 50 per cent of the impact of a broadsheet page; but they will struggle to get the same revenues for a tabloid as for a broadsheet.

A tabloid double-page spread takes up the same space as a single broadsheet page but that means changing the artwork from a portrait to letterbox configuration, which means extra costs for the advertiser (and your ad no longer faces editorial, which advertisers like).

In contrast, The Times has focused on a more achievable target, aiming for 50-70 per cent of a broadsheet page's revenue for its tabloid pages, with the long term goal of achieving 75 per cent.

In the end, it all comes down to producing a quality product - if The Times can, as it claims it will, maintain its high standards (despite the tabloid format), and increase its readership (as a result of the tabloid format), then it's on the path to growing ad revenues. Advertisers will happily pay more for space in a quality paper that reaches a wider demographic - regardless of size.

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